Heading into the theater to watch “Crazy Rich Asians,” I had butterflies in my stomach. Why all the nervous energy and pressure on myself? Is this normal? Do other minorities feel this way when seeing an all-minority cast they resemble?
I grew up in the foothills of rural Appalachia, where there were almost no other Asian families to relate to or to form meaningful bonds with or friendships. I’ve often felt intrigued, confused and slightly distrustful of my fellow kinsman. A lot of this stems from my insecurity of being terrified that I’ll be outed as a “phony” Korean-American: I don’t speak Korean, I have not returned to Korea since I arrived in America as a 5-year-old with my parents and my three half-siblings. I have no strong ties to my heritage.
My parents assimilated as fast as they could, without the benefit of ESL classes (I was ordered to speak English at home to help them learn it faster) or the support of an Asian community services network. There was no grandmother or friends to speak my native language to, so I eventually lost it. Shameful, I know.
I was the only Asian girl in elementary and middle school. The most Korean thing about me was that I ate plenty of Korean food but was paranoid about admitting it to my friends, or sharing any Korean food such as kimchi, seaweed or dried squid snacks with them. Although egg rolls and fried rice were fine.
So, as a self-declared fake Asian, my shoulders were tense during “Crazy Rich Asians.” I realized I wanted the movie to represent me, an Asian American — the American part was key. I wanted no stereotypical Asian accents from the characters, though some of them have British accents by way of Singapore. (The storyline includes travel to Singapore and exploration of Chinese culture there.) Thankfully there are no typical “Hollywood” Asians here: no martial artists, sexy geishas, brainiac scientists, engineers, lawyers or doctors. They are rich, period. And there are hot, sexy Asian men — often an undersexualized, emasculated group in American film and media (think Data in “Goonies” or Mr. Chow in “The Hangover.”)
While the film centers on East Asians, being described as Asian American encompasses huge geographic regions along with people of entirely different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. I won’t say “CRA” is a feat for all Asians (for example, Indians, Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians aren’t cast here) but it was very satisfying and validating for me to see people on the big screen who looked like me.
My formative childhood years were without YouTube, and there was no “Fresh Off the Boat” sitcom. Sure, there have been other all-Asian casts in movies (think “Joy Luck Club” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). But it was great to finally see two Asian leads in a non-foreign-language film, a romantic comedy no less. How more American can you get? “Crazy Rich Asians” is not about the struggles and sadness of Asian culture so often depicted in films as much as it is about love, laughter and forgiveness.
I did see myself in the female lead, Rachel (Constance Wu), who in the film is called a “banana” (often a derogatory statement that refers to being Asian on the outside and white on the inside). The point is we assimilate. We assimilate very well. Rachel speaks perfect English with no accent and is insecure, goofy, charismatic and in love — like any other female lead in a Hollywood romantic comedy. And I wanted to be her funny sidekick/best friend Goh Peik, played by Awkwafina. There are so few characters like her depicted in feature films.
I’m reminded that Asian-Americans have a long way to go before shedding some of negative (bad drivers) and impossibly positive stereotypes (being good at math) we carry — something more prevalent in Chicago than in NYC, L.A. or San Francisco. Every so often I’ll hear a comment or get asked a question that is fundamentally racist. Every time I tell someone I’m from North Carolina, it’s invariably followed up with: Where are you really from, Ji? It reminds me that I am still viewed as very foreign.
Also, watching this movie reminded me of all the work I have to do on my journey of defining myself, stepping into and owning what Asian-American means. I’m bad at math, a fantastic driver, had violin and piano lessons growing up, am a working creative as an adult, am full of shame and guilt about not achieving more. Some of that defies cultural convention and stereotypes, and some of it is deeply rooted in my heritage.
Working in media in the third-largest market in the country, I’ve been thrilled to be an American-Asian — perhaps a more accurate representation. I’ve had gut checks that forces within this country — political, media and corporate — don’t really hear us as American or as a collective force to be reckoned with (especially in the places where I have lived). Maybe selling out at the box office will help move the marker on that. Maybe seeing ourselves increasingly depicted on the big screen in positive ways will stir and validate us in powerful ways. We are so much more than a model minority.
Ji Suk Yi is a program host at the Chicago Sun-Times. She reports weekly on “The Grid,” our video series about Chicago neighborhoods.